How ‘nature-based solutions’ can grow economic success

The last 100 years have seen incredible advances in wealth and health – both in the developed world and emerging economies – raising thousands of people out of poverty every day.  We still have a long way to go, but we’re doing better than at any time in human history on many objective measures of prosperity.

There’s a catch, though.  Politics, conflicts and pandemics aside, the elephant in the room is actually . . .  the room itself: that is where we live.  Our unprecedented wealth creation has – and still is – causing extraordinary resource depletion.  The unsustainable consumption of natural resources is destroying the plants, animals, and habitats that support all life on Earth.

Reducing global carbon emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change on our planet must always be our primary focus.  But the value of achieving this ambition is significantly reduced if, by the time we reach net zero, the natural environment that supports our society has already been damaged beyond repair.

The world is running out of resources – and patience

Measured in cash terms, our collective wealth is staggering.  But widen the lens, and we’re running a huge ongoing and increasing debt.  The reality is that nature doesn’t just sit alongside our financial systems; it underpins them.  More than half of the world’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is moderately or highly dependent on nature.[1]  And, of course, the rest wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have anything to eat.

While never getting distracted from the net zero imperative, to sustain our livelihoods and our lives, we must also invest in long-term solutions that fully consider the impact on nature, not simply on financial wealth or the immediate economic benefits.

As the European Commission states in a 2023 report (itself quoting the UN):

Nature-based solutions are one important tool at the disposal of decision-makers which can help to tackle these problems.  Nature-based solutions are ‘actions to protect, conserve, restore, sustainably use and manage natural or modified terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, which address social, economic and environmental challenges effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human well-being, ecosystem services and resilience and biodiversity benefits.’” [2]


It’s time to change how we measure wealth

Before we talk practical solutions, let’s take a step back.  As with many problems, changing perceptions is the first priority.  And that begins with changing how we describe the problem and measure its magnitude.

GDP is a useful indication of short-term economic performance.  However, GDP does not account for the depletion of a nation’s – or indeed the planets’ – natural assets.  This can make GDP incomplete at best, and pernicious at worst, as a holistic measure of progress or impact.  Many countries which appear to be growing in economic prosperity and wealth may in fact be concealing severe damage to their ecosystems and jeopardizing their future economic success for generations to come.

The trade in natural resources, primarily from emerging economies to the developed world, is a particularly pressing example.  Even if those nations are remunerated in the short-term, the ultimate costs could far outweigh the advantages if their resources and their natural environment are not – or cannot – be replenished.

By this measure, the growth of international trade and resulting economic expansion of emerging economies are not what they seem.  Many nations feel they have a right to exploit their natural resources as, historically, countless other countries have.  However, to achieve the same level of prosperity – or even exceed it – they cannot afford to tread the same – uninformed and blind to the wider consequences – path.  To do so might bring short term wealth, but it would certainly be accompanied by much larger longer-term problems.

We need to learn the lessons of our own past.

To achieve truly sustainable development and growth, nature must be part, no, at the center, of the economic equation (including the planet’s carbon cycle).

Prof. Sir Partha Dasgupta University of Cambridge
Prof. Sir Partha Dasgupta
University of Cambridge

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge, who led the UK Government’s Independent Review on the Economics of Biodiversity[3], recommends a new measure of prosperity that considers the value of nature, or what he calls ‘natural capital’:




“We should instead be using a measure that accounts for the value of all capital stocks – produced capital (roads, buildings, ports, machines), human capital (skills, knowledge), and natural capital.  We may call that measure ‘inclusive wealth.’”

As ‘inclusive wealth’ includes three types of capital, it makes it easier to identify the inherent trade-offs in all economic activity.  Once all factors are taken into account, we can better judge a nation’s true prosperity.  There have been some promising moves in this direction, including China’s Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP) and New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget, both of which bring nature back into the equation to create a more holistic accounting of human flourishing.

New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget commits to putting people’s wellbeing and the environment at the heart of its policies.  It is designed to use social and environmental indicators, along with economic and fiscal ones, to guide the Government’s investment and funding decisions.

“The purpose of government spending is to ensure citizens’ health and life satisfaction, and that – not wealth or economic growth – is the metric by which a country’s progress should be measured.  GDP alone does not guarantee improvement to our living standards and does not take into account who benefits and who is left out,” said former PM Jacinda Ardern on launching the initiative.

Ultimately, we don’t want to keep becoming richer on paper while flora and fauna disappear.  It’s not enough to simply keep track of resources and single-mindedly pursue our carbon emissions targets in isolation.  We have to channel our wealth back into preserving and protecting the natural world, while at the same changing the way we measure, manage and – above all – use our precious natural resources.

What are ‘nature-based’ solutions?

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Nature-based solutions are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as:

“Actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”[4].


According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), these societal challenges range from disaster risk reduction, climate change and biodiversity loss, to food and water security as well as human health.

Nature-based solutions make economic, as well as ecological sense, owing to the fact they are often cheaper than standard (nonnatural) solutions over the longer term, owing to the potential for responding to damages and the ensuing avoided costs.[5]

And ecological catastrophe is a costly proposition either way.

Plant in earth

Tree-planting is one of the most widely-known examples of a nature-based solution, as it has the potential to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help achieve net-zero emissions targets.  Other examples are shown in the table below.  They include protecting old-growth forests to reduce floods and landslides and restoring coastal ecosystems as a defense against storms and sea level rise.[6]

Examples of nature-based solutions

Category of Nature-based Approaches Examples
Ecosystem restoration approaches
  • Ecological restoration
  • Ecological Engineering
  • Forest landscape restoration
Issue-specific ecosystem-related approaches
  • Ecosystem-based adaptation
  • Ecosystem-based mitigation
  • Climate adaptation services
  • Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction
Infrastructure-related approaches
  • Natural infrastructure
  • Green infrastructure
Ecosystem-based management approaches
  • Integrated coastal zone management
  • Integrated water resources management
Ecosystem protection approaches
  • Area-based conservation approaches, including protected area management

Source: IUCN

8 principles for nature-based solutions

Is being ‘natural’ the only prerequisite for nature-based solutions?  Not quite.  The IUCN proposes the following eight principles to help ensure such solutions deliver on their promise.[7]

Nature-based solutions:

  1. Should embrace nature conservation norms (and principles)
  2. Can both be implemented alone, or in an integrated manner with other solutions to societal challenges (e.g., technological and engineering solutions)
  3. Are determined by site-specific natural and cultural contexts that include traditional, local and scientific knowledge
  4. Produce societal benefits in a fair and equitable way, in a manner that promotes transparency and broad participation
  5. Maintain biological and cultural diversity and the ability of ecosystems to evolve over time
  6. Are applied at a landscape scale
  7. Recognize and address the trade-offs between the production of a few immediate economic benefits for development, and future options for the production of the full range of ecosystems services
  8. Are an integral part of the overall design of policies, and measures or actions, to address a specific challenge.

Nature based solutions

What are the priorities?

According to the UNEP, by 2030, investments in nature-based solutions will need to at least triple in real terms if the world is to meet its climate change, biodiversity and land degradation targets[8].

Investment targets

Balancing our natural resources budget and mitigating climate change are complex problems with complex solutions.  However, at the highest level of analysis, the answers are apparent.  Here are just four:

  • Spend more money. According to the State of Finance for Nature report produced by UNEP[9], US$ 133 billion currently flows into nature-based solutions annually, with public funds representing 86% and private finance only 14%.  This is just a third of what we need to spend if we’re going to achieve our goals for the climate, biodiversity, and land.
  • Plant more trees. There are numerous nature-based solutions, but establishing more forests is far and away the most important.  UNEP says that forest-based solutions alone will require about US$ 203 billion in total annual expenditure globally by 2050.  While preserving existing forests is critical, around 80% of this investment should be channeled into establishing new forests.[10]
  • Get more data. We need a better understanding of our impact on nature together with the frameworks to track spending and assess its effectiveness.  Institutions like central banks and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) can help here, providing financial and technical expertise to assess risks and monitor investment.
  • Create the right incentives. Governments and international bodies can establish rules that make nature-based investments more appealing and less risky – or simply mandatory – while targeting ecologically damaging supply chains.  For example, the EU Commission “actively pursues policy dialogues and outreach initiatives at EU and global level to foster engagement, develop a broad knowledge base and stimulate market supply and demand.”[11]

There are plenty of examples of what can be achieved with the right combination of conviction, commitment and investment.  In Scotland, the government announced a £1.8 billion package of investment in low-carbon infrastructure in 2021.  This includes £20 million for peatland restoration and a commitment to invest £250 million over the next 10 years.  Considering up to 25% of the land cover in Scotland is peatlands, this announcement and the restoration action to come will likely place Scotland in a position as a ‘peatlands restoration champion’.

Café Selva Norte project in PeruSimilarly, the Café Selva Norte project in Peru, financed by the Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) Fund, aims at reversing land degradation by implementing sustainable coffee plantations on degraded areas.

This US$ 12 million initiative aims to transform 9,000 hectares of degraded land into productive agroforestry areas, avoid or sequester 1.3 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, and improve the livelihoods of 2400 producers.

It creates a scalable model for sustainable agroforestry that could be replicated at a landscape level in other areas of Peru and South America.


COP28 shows the way

At the COP28 UN climate conference in Dubai in 2023, which I was honored to attend, the need to consider nature-based solutions was a prominent topic of discussion and saw some positive progress.  Notably, the establishment of a US$ 700+ million loss and damage fund[12] was confirmed, to compensate vulnerable countries coping with loss and damage caused by climate change.  First announced at COP27, the fund has been a long-standing demand of developing nations on the frontlines of climate change coping with the cost of the devastation caused by ever-increasing extreme weather events, such as drought, floods, and rising seas.  The scope of the fund includes a specific focus on Indigenous Peoples and vulnerable communities.

COP28 hosts UAE also pledged US$ 30 billion to a new fund called ‘Alterra’ to invest in climate friendly projects across the globe, with US$ 5 billion earmarked for the Global South[13].  Several major development banks pledged over US$ 31.6 billion to climate projects, while a number of governments pledged smaller sums to funds including the Green Climate Fund (US$ 3.5 billion), Adaptation Fund (US$ 134 million) and Least Developed Countries Fund (US$ 129.3million)[14].

The role of private finance

While the scale of the challenge demands public-level investment, it shouldn’t be left to governments alone.  Private finance currently accounts for just 14% of investment into nature-based solutions.  UNEP believes this needs to be ramped up through a mixture of blended finance, changes in fiscal and trade policies, and other incentives.[15]

I firmly believe that private investors have a responsibility to use the power of private capital to create positive change and fight climate change, while restoring natural resources and using them more efficiently.  Whether it is supporting and financing sustainable approaches for food and water production, security and land use, or helping to transform the global energy industry towards renewable, sustainable and clean sources of power.

Community Jameel at COP28
Community Jameel’s participation at COP28 began on Friday with a breakfast meeting co-hosted by Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Center L), and myself (Center R). The meeting – ‘Farming for our future: Growing climate resilience’ – addressed food security in the face of climate change, including the work of the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action, at Goals House. Attended by decision-makers from key donor countries and low- and middle-income countries, media commentators, digital influencers, food companies, as well as the COP28 Food Systems team, we featured a panel of experts to discuss the importance of agricultural innovation for climate resilience, the challenges faced by smallholder farmers face due to climate change, and the need for collaborative, evidence-based policies to enhance global food security and nutrition. Participants included Guyo Malicha Roba, Ph.D., head of the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action; Tarifa Ajeif AlZaabi, Ed.D, director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA); Eliud Rugut, smallholder farmer and Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens youth agrichampion, Kenya; and Omar Shihab, founder and chief sustainability officer of the Michelin Green Star restaurant BOCA in Dubai.
Fady Jameel
Fady Jameel speaking at COP 28

During my attendance at COP28, I was involved in a number of sessions that brought together key players from the private, public and third sectors to explore how collaboration on these crucial issues could be advanced.

These included a roundtable at the Jameel Arts Center co-hosted with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and The Adaptation Research Alliance, to engage on evidence-based climate change adaptation; and co-hosting with Bill Gates an interactive breakfast discussion on agricultural adaptation and climate resilience.

The Jameel Family itself, through the Jameel Investment Management Company (JIMCO), is committed to financing nature-based solutions.  Examples of this strategy in action include investments in funds that are building sustainable portfolios around resource efficiency, decarbonization, water infrastructure and regenerative agriculture.

Some investors are happy to take the lead, particularly private capital.  This is one advantage that private investors have over public corporations and the City or Wall Street.  Private equity, particularly private family equity, is ‘patient’ equity.  If you are investing your own funds, you can set your own objectives – and that can include taking a longer-term view of nature-based (or other emergent green-tech) solutions, confident in the knowledge that the eventual returns will more than justify the wait.

Bezos Earth FundAmazon founder Jeff Bezos, for example, announced he would be spending US$ 2 billion (£1.5 billion) restoring landscapes and transforming food systems via the Bezos Earth Fund.  The Fund also pledged US$ 1 billion towards conserving nature and indigenous peoples and cultures.  Together these pledges are part of a US$ 10 billion wider commitment to fighting climate change.


Bezos said that two-thirds of Africa’s productive land was degraded, but this could be reversed with nature-based solutions:

“Restoration can improve soil fertility, raise yields and improve food security, make water more reliable, create jobs and boost economic growth, while also sequestering carbon,” he said.[16]

Time to diversify our natural portfolio

Investing in nature makes sound business sense, something which I explored in my previous Spotlight article.  Nature shares some of the logic of finance as well.  It’s standard practice for a financial investment portfolio to include a diverse range of assets to reduce risk and uncertainty.  In the same way, we need to ensure maximum diversity in the planet’s portfolio of natural assets, strengthening Nature’s resilience to shocks and reducing the risks to our way of life.”

Implementing nature-based solutions is about protecting – and strengthening – critical assets on our journey to a more sustainable future.  And the return on that investment is nothing less than the survival of our society.